I’ve grown accustomed to moving over the years.
Hither, thither, and . . . .
When I was an Adventist pastor’s kid in the 80s and 90s, almost everyone thought my parents must have been in the military, because we moved so often.
Then I grew up and embraced the call to Adventist ministry. And with that call came the obligatory move from one district to the other. With every change came a new home. And with every new home came the desire to downsize.
PACKING = DOWNSIZING?
Packing a home and looking through boxes always leads to a desire to declutter and purge. My philosophy was always “If I haven’t seen it in two years, I don’t need it.” And most of the time that was true. I was making space for the new life that was a result of the change.
Change of any kind can be disorienting, especially when it’s unexpected. The past two years of pandemic have been an unwelcome upheaval, but some good has come from it as well. In a sense the change has caused many of us to downsize. We’ve had to declutter our homes and our lives so that we can focus on the things that matter. It’s been a lifestyle change.
The modern church has had to downsize as well, and not just in the sense of smaller numbers gathering on Sabbath mornings. We had to downsize ministry—cut the less extraneous significant elements, so to speak. We now have to redefine our vision and our methods. The church is downsizing to make room for the new ideas and practices that will be birthed from its response to a pandemic that literally turned the whole landscape of ministry on its head. And as churches slowly go back to gathering in greater numbers, the question we ask ourselves is “Where do we go from here?”
That’s a tough question to answer, because the church finds itself nestled between the blissful nostalgia of pre-pandemic church, with its programs and ceaseless meetings, and looking forward with prophetic urgency to an uncertain future.
Today we face hurdles that we never imagined. But the church has also shown extraordinary grit as well.
So what does the post-pandemic church look like? To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’m still taking it a day at a time, like the rest of you.
What I do know is that as a remnant people we should look something like the church at its inception.
Acts 2 masterfully summarizes the characteristics of the early church:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (verses 42-47, NIV).
The characteristics of the early church are the same that the modern church will have to embody in order to move with confidence into the great, wide-open spaces of the will of God.
The early church of Acts 2, and the church we will have to be in a new post-pandemic world, can be synthesized in five characteristics.
1 A Learning Church: The church of Acts 2 was dedicated to listening to sound teaching, and was always learning. It was a loving community of believers ever improving, ever growing, and ever evolving. God’s people cannot be so comfortable as to believe that there is nothing left for us to learn. There is a progressive dynamic to our understanding as Seventh-day Adventists. Our understanding theologically, sociologically, and certainly methodologically will be ever growing and evolving. Knowledge—and its application in our lives and in the church—is not static but dynamic.
There is a danger in always looking back and never forward. Often we rest on what we know, or our last great idea, or the last great ministry initiative. When we focus only on what God has done in the past, we leave no time to see or be on board with what God is doing in the present.
I was 15 when my father taught me to drive. He told me to focus on the road because I needed to be able to navigate the challenges of highway driving. “Pay attention to the road,” he said. “Use your rearview mirror only for a point of reference.” The same principle applies to post-pandemic ministry. The new world seen through the windshield of ministry is where our focus must be. We can’t properly move forward while concentrating on the rearview mirror. If we have a rearview mirror ministry—always celebrating the past—we will miss out on the windshield of the will of God. And the result is catastrophic, for we will never see or understand what God is doing, how God is leading, or who we can become in the present. We will have to be an ever-learning people.
2 A Community: The early church was a close knit group, an intentional togetherness, a unity. The early believers knew that they were responsible for each other. There was this sense that “we are only as strong as we are together.” The accountability was deliberate. These new Christians understood that if there was a weak believer, they weren’t to leave them behind in an “every-Christian-for-themself ” mindset seen too often in present-day congregations. The early church believed that if any brother or sister was weak, then the community of believers had a responsibility to carry them.
The book of Acts sees the church establish itself in two locations: the Temple court and the home. There was the grand gathering of corporate worship in the Temple court, but also the intimate meaningful setting of the home group. The fellowship was genuine, and they knew how to make the large assembly feel small. The home was an extension of the work of the church.
Today’s congregations will have to adopt the same practice of making the big feel small. Gone may be the days of packed sanctuaries. But the church that has discovered the ability to make the large feel small through small intentional communities of faith (small groups) will see sustained growth spiritually and numerically.
The church truly becomes a community when there is loving togetherness. Post-pandemic church ministry will need to be a ministry built on a structure of loving accountability. The stresses of social distancing and the resulting feelings of detachment and spiritual fatigue will linger well past the days of quarantine. And the church that emphasizes the health of the community of believers over programs and cathedral gatherings will be more relevant to believer and nonbeliever alike.
3 A Prayer-prioritized Church: Early Christians knew that they could not navigate life without prayer. They understood that no good could come of the efforts of the church without the power of prayer. It was a church inspired, motivated, and empowered by prayer.
The present church will face the challenges of a new world as we slowly emerge from these past two years. We will have to realize the truth that we can’t meet the challenges of life and ministry if we have not first met God in prayer. No amount of learning , planning , money, or vision casting will sustain the church of God if prayer is not deliberate, permeating, and sincere.
Prayer requires bold, unapologetic belief in the power and character of God. We have to ask ourselves the probing question “Do we truly believe God will do what He says He will do?” We will have to be believers in the impossible, looking to the heavens for miracles and wonders. Prayer will be more than liturgical practice: it will be the supernatural collision between divinity and humanity.
Prayer is reliant more upon faith than budgets. It is predicated more on bold, childlike belief than on practical methods. Prayer will need to be the first response of the church rather than its last resort.
4 A God-powered Church: If prayer is central to post-pandemic ministry, the evidence of God’s power will follow. When I was a child, the Bible was the book of the miraculous. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost that sense of wonder. But miracles are still happening, and God is still a beautiful mystery.
The miraculous can become commonplace again. The early church saw signs and wonders. Things were happening! Are those same things happening now? Are miracles still possible? Today’s church, when given to prayer, can still be filled with wonder in an age of skepticism. We will have to be a community of faith that under stands that the impossible is only the beginning when we are unified with God and each other.
5 A Happy Church: The book of Acts reminds the church of 2022 that it should be a happy church. There has to be a joyful winsomeness that fills the church. In fact, the idea of an unhappy Christian is a contradiction in terms. We can’t be both Christian and miserable.
But the joy should also be visible, unlike the generally hidden joy of knowing Jesus and being in fellowship with like believers. There will have to be an attractiveness about us. For so many stone-faced, somber Christians there is a line of granite running through them. Our Adventist Christianity will have to be more than simply being good. We will need to look, act, and sound joyous from the heart.
This kind of contagious joyfulness will be evidence of the abundant life that we profess as children of a loving God. It’s the joy that will bring favor with the world around us and draw them in to want to know their Savior.
Where do we land?
It goes without saying that much of what we
will need to be is countercultural. Like the early church, the endemic church, the church that must now live with and manage the virus and its longterm effects, will have to be less concerned with building larger cathedrals and more focused on building loving communities.
Many of us learned, when the pandemic began, that we were more dependent on the building and in-person gatherings for our spiritual vitality then we realized. The thought was sobering. But now God has downsized us. He has stripped away the artificial supports of meetings and buildings and presented to us the question “What do you have left?” The answer comes back: “We have God, and we have community.” That is the church! And that is who the church will need to be. A church divinely downsized. A denomination decluttered and focused on what matters most. I’d like to be a part of that church. My hope, my faith, is that there are many who will join me on this journey of rediscovery.
Melvyn W. Warfield II is lead pastor of Community Praise Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alexandria, Virginia, United States.